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Fridays are usually one of my favorite days of the week. People are peppier, the freedom of the weekend setting on their doorsteps, and exciting plans can be carefully crafted for the coming hours away from the workplace.
Now take that joyful exuberance of the end of the week and (arbitrarily) triple it. THAT is the feeling of a Friday at Anime Expo. The day to come would hold host to such high-profile events as the world premiere of fan-favorite Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind, the directorial debut of famed Japanese screenwriter Mari Okada, and Studio TRIGGER‘s return to AX with a world premiere of their own. Alongside these events were more cosplay gatherings than you could shake a stick of Pocky at, the beloved AX Dance hosted by SoCal-based record label Attack the Music, and the 110% jam-packed 18+ panels from hentai publisher Fakku! Combine that with regularly scheduled anime programming, the omnipresent dealer’s hall with tempting exclusive anime goods, and, oh yeah, ANI-SONG, a star-studded concert extravaganza for all fans of Japanese music, and you’ve got one supremely overwhelming day.
When it comes down to it, one learns it’s simply not possible to attend every last event, big and small. This is Anime Conventions 101. Over my years attending AX, I’ve carefully honed the ability to know what events to pick and what must be sacrificed. Without fail, one of my favorite AX activities actually happens well before the con even begins. When they release their online scheduler for the weekend, I am on top of that like a thick hunk of tender salmon on a bed of sushi rice. Something about seeing all the possibilities, which guests I could see speak, which premieres I can attend, and what outstanding musical acts I can enjoy, gets the hype flowing like nothing else. Sometimes it hurts to sacrifice a potentially awesome event for another, but that’s just life in a microcosm, huh?
Friday began by plopping my nerdy butt down in a hefty (and growing!) line. See, word around the con was that you could play a demo of Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts III, but only if you’re willing to wait hours for your turn. I figured what better event to give some time in line for than the highly-anticipated conclusion to the Kingdom Hearts series? Luckily there was a media/industry line and I was able to make friends with some fine folks while I anxiously awaited my time with Sora, Donald, and Goofy. When AX staff finally let us in to the Entertainment Hall and I could get my mitts all over that controller, my body was ready for the Square Enix-meets-Disney slugfest. Graphically, I was floored. This was so many leagues beyond what KHII or any of the spinoffs were able to deliver way back on the PS2, 3DS, and PSP. The lighting, the particle effects, everything was showcased beautifully in the various environments of the demo.
First up I played through the Hercules world, Mount Olympus, which had me scaling cliff faces and battling through swarms of Heartless all the way to the summit. This all culminated in a showdown against the Rock Titan, with Sora and crew summoning that stunning rendition of the Disneyland Electric Parade train we’ve all seen from the game trailers. I can confirm it was definitely cooler in person. The second half of the demo was playing through Toy Box, the Toy Story world, alongside Buzz and Woody. Though the graphics were just as good, I wasn’t as wowed by the character designs for Sora‘s group or the Heartless. I get that it was trying to fit into the Toy Story aesthetic, but something about it wasn’t as visually appealing to me. Additionally, this is when the gameplay started to feel a little off. With some of the changes they made to the combat system, I get that the developers wanted to add some depth. Trying to string combos together is fun, but generally repetitive and button-mashy, so throwing in more features to “deepen” combat makes sense. I just can’t say they work well in tandem. Keyblade form changes didn’t really click with me and seemed to make the combat more convoluted. The first-person moments felt a little too out of place and uncharacteristic of the series (though apparently a previous KH spinoff introduced this element). Certainly I’ll reserve final judgment until the title releases in January of next year, but for now, my excitement has been a bit tempered. Combat aside, at the least I’ll want to see how this decade and a half-long journey wraps up.
Without missing a beat, I found myself shortly thereafter in line for yet another much-anticipated extension to a beloved series. Certainly one could not have expected the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure series to take off as strongly as it has in recent years. A relatively niche series that first began in the late 1980s couldn’t possibly have much mainstream appeal in the 2010’s… could it? Through David Production, the series has been catapulted into the spotlight, and now every new season of JoJo’s that is confirmed creates a widespread surge of hype. You can only imagine how electric the room felt before the world premiere of the first episode of a new JoJo’s series adaptation. Throats were yelled raw as series editor Naokatsu Tsuda joined former and current JoJo’s manga editors David Brothers and Urian Brown to discuss how the series is crafted. Applause was near-nonstop when some of the best cosplayers around were invited to step on stage and strike a JoJo’s-esque pose for the chance to win prizes and, of course, the audience’s undying love. As for the episode itself? Tune in later this Fall for the debut, but I will say that as an avid JoJo’s fan, I am quite pleased with the consistent David Production quality, and I’m VERY interested to see where this story goes. Above all though, it felt like an event for the fans, by the fans, and in a convention the magnitude of Anime Expo, that is an accomplishment unlike any other.
A bevvy of food trucks were in full force all weekend to help fuel the undying horde of anime-lovers. Across the street from the convention center, on the ground level right next to one of the two major entrances, and even on a higher level within the center itself you could kind trucks of all colors and cuisines. Spam musubi? Check. “Junkyard”-style gourmet fries? Oh yes. Boba, takoyaki, snow cones, churros, prime rib burgers, chicken katsu sandwiches, and lobster rolls? Hold on, let me look in the back. Oh yeah, they got all that. While of course prices varied depending on dish and dealer, overall I was very satisfied with my AX dining experience and options this year. They really ramped it up to make food as convenient and accessible as possible for the 110,000 people in attendance. I can’t imagine the work that goes into ensuring all the moving parts stay oiled, so thank you AX management for a job well done. My stomach on all four days appreciates it.
My next stop would take me on a journey across area AX encompasses, all the way to a far-off kingdom known as “J.W. Marriott.” For the directorial debut of Mari Okada, I would happily walk 20 minutes in the beating July sun (though to be honest, the weather was a lot fairer than previous years.) Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms was a feature-length film set in a traditional fantasy setting, complete with elves, dragons, and a bevvy of sword-wielders. While there were certainly warring political factions vying for control, at the heart of it all was a rather unique relationship between an Elf child-turned-adoptive-mother and a human baby boy she finds abandoned in his dead mother’s arms. Both of the two are survivors of attacks against their homes, but what makes the relationship really special is that, as the boy grows up and ages, the girl seems not to mature physically at all. Certainly she ages emotionally, as she really begins to fill her role in the boy’s life. However the relationship between the two cannot stay the same when he grows into a rebellious teenager and eventually an adult, while she doesn’t physically change at all. Now throw in the political turmoil and fantasy elements into the mix and you’ve got quite the engrossing film, both on a macro and micro level. Maquia is set to debut later this month in select US theaters, and though some anime films can be hit or miss, this is one you’re going to want to watch. Just make sure to carry some tissues… no spoilers, it’s gets a bit heavy.
After an outstanding movie-going experience with Mari Okada, I decided to give some of the Fakku! lines a shot. I knew there would be little chance of getting in so close to the traditionally very popular panels’ start times, and in the end, I was thoroughly whelmed. Just as expected, the throng of hentai fans gathered for the numerous Fakku!~sponsored panels was in the hundreds, if not thousands, and I did a complete 180 upon glimpsing such a gathering. So though my night ended with more of a whimper than a bang, I calmly remembered how AX is a marathon and not a sprint. Slowly petering out the night would help me last through the next two days without collapsing on the show floor. For the time being, I recharged my batteries and soaked my feet in the comfort of my home, patiently awaiting all the fun to come Day 3.
To Be Continued in Part 3
Photo Credit: SPJA/Anime Expo